Thursday, June 28, 2007

Facebook and MySpace may mirror social and class differences among teens

Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing reported earlier this week on a working draft of a (non-academic) paper by danah boyd [yes, really in lowercase - very e. e. cummings], "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace." This intriguing piece "posits that well-to-do, stable American teens with 'good prospects' end up on Facebook, while poor, queer, marginal and non-white teens end up on MySpace." He quotes the paper:

"The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

"MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, 'burnouts,' 'alternative kids,' 'art fags,' punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. Teens who are really into music or in a band are on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers."

danah points to the aesthetic differences between the two sites and how they characterize the differences between their user bases:

"Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and 'so middle school.' They prefer the 'clean' look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is 'so lame.'

"What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as 'glitzy' or 'bling' or 'fly' (or what my generation would call 'phat') by subaltern teens. Terms like 'bling' come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics.

"I'm sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the 'eye of the beholder' - they are culturally narrated and replicated. That 'clean' or 'modern' look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I'm drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook."

The full text of the essay is well worth the read and there is on-line discussion of the paper at her blog, apophenia -- which also provides an interesting and insightful look at how the media coverage (and in particular, web reporting) on this paper - only posted on-line on June 24th - has quickly spun out of control.

A piece entitled "Digital white flight”? Facebook, class and social networking" posted (on June 22nd) on nmrg, the "New Media Research Group Blog" arrived at parallel conclusions (even referencing similar aesthetic associations):

"...let’s try a hypothesis: as MySpace fills up with 'late adopters' (the older crowd, who may have learned about myspace from other media vectors; 'desperate singles'; anyone whose fingers are some distance from the pulse), and as house-trashing horror-stories circulate, younger, educated, linked in social networkers are gravitating towards the places where 'people like us' gather. As the teens head for Xanga or linger on MySpace, a well-heeled college crowd (and grads or even acas like me) head for the 'nice neighbourhood' that is Facebook, in a way that constitutes a kind of 'digital white flight' (which may or may not have much to do with race) from MySpace, now the mass market SNS.

"The aesthetics of Facebook help here. No gaudy personalisation (none of the “teenage bedroom walls” of many MySpace profiles), no noisy pop-ups or tracks, no intrusive ads. Facebook’s blues and whites and clean backgrounds are reminiscent of an OSX application, or even the Wordpress edit window I am now using. It’s IKEA minimalism - not avant-garde, just neat and functional..."

In a related story about teens and online social networking, CNet News reported yesterday on a Pew study that found that one third of all teens are victims of "cyberbullying:"

"The most common form of bullying reported by teens online involves another person publicizing a private e-mail, instant message or text message, according to a study released Wednesday from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Fifteen percent of teens surveyed said that they had experienced the embarrassment of having a private communication posted publicly online or forwarded to a third party.

"Other types of harassment include someone spreading a rumor or posting an embarrassing photo on the Web, as well as someone sending a threatening or aggressive e-mail, IM or text message, the report found...

"Pew also found that girls are more likely to be bullied online than boys. Thirty-eight percent of girls reported that they had been harassed online vs. 26 percent of boys. The number of incidents rose, however, among older girls and teens who regularly use social networks like Facebook or Nearly 40 percent of teens on social networks say that they've been bullied."

NFTY (the youth movement of US Reform Judaism) has been promoting ethical on-line blogging through the OurSpace initiative. Further information about cyberbullying (and resources for dealing with it) can be found at cyberbullying (from which the above artwork was taken),, and probably dozens of other websites about which I am unaware (although if you know of one, please post a comment). Also, Wiredkids has an online quiz to help you determine if you have been the victim of cyberbullying.

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